Acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker worked for a charity called the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust for three years, starting in 2014. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

In the three years after he arrived in Washington in 2014, Matthew G. Whitaker received more than $1.2 million as the leader of a charity that reported having no other employees, some of the best pay of his career.

The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust described itself as a new watchdog nonprofit dedicated to exposing unethical conduct by public officials. For Whitaker, it became a lucrative steppingstone in a swift rise from a modest law practice in Iowa to the nation’s top law enforcement job. As FACT’s president, he regularly appeared on radio and television, often to skewer liberals.

But FACT’s origins and the source of funding used to pay Whitaker — now the acting attorney general — remain obscured. An examination of state and federal records, and interviews with those involved, show that the group is part of a national network of nonprofits that often work in concert to amplify conservative messages.

Contrary to its claims in news releases and a tax filing, the group was created under a different name two years before Whitaker’s arrival, according to incorporation and IRS records. At least two of the organizers were involved in another conservative charity using the same address.

In its application to the IRS for status as a tax-exempt organization, the organizers reported that the group would study the impact of environmental regulations on businesses, records show. In that incarnation, the group took no action and “only existed on paper,” one man named in IRS filings as a board member told The Washington Post. Another named in a state filing as a board member said he never agreed to be on the board.

Over a series of 2017 interviews, acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker expressed skepticism about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. (JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Whitaker’s 2017 pay from the charity — more than $500,000 for the first nine months, or half the charity’s receipts for the year, according to tax filings — and the group’s earlier, dormant incarnation have not been previously reported by media. 

Whitaker did not respond to requests for interviews. Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec declined to answer detailed questions about his involvement in FACT, referring a reporter to the charity.

A FACT spokesman who provided a statement on the condition that his name not be used declined to disclose the source of its funding.

“Like nearly all non-profit organizations — including those with similarly stated missions — FACT does not and is not required to release its donor information,” the statement said. “This protects free speech rights of all of these groups’ supporters as outlined in the First Amendment.”

The statement said that FACT “properly notified the IRS of its name change.”

“It is not unusual for a corporation, not for profit or profit, to refine its name and purpose, and since its inception FACT’s purpose has always been consistent with non-profit law and all appropriate notifications were made,” the statement said.

The spokesman did not respond to questions about whether the group told the IRS about its change in mission, as is required by IRS rules.

President Trump said Nov. 18 he would not stop acting attorney general, Matthew G. Whitaker, if he decides to curtail the special counsel probe. (Elyse Samuels /The Washington Post)

When the nonprofit was launched in 2012, Whitaker was a former U.S. attorney with a modest legal practice in Iowa that paid him $79,000 that year, according to a later disclosure he filed for a failed Senate bid. He also had several local side businesses, including a day-care center and a trailer manufacturer. 

A Virginia resident named Raymond Wotring and two others filed papers to create the Free Market American Educational Foundation, state and federal records show. Its stated mission was to “conduct research and provide informational studies on free market concepts in relation to government regulations and policy.”

Wotring and one of the other founding members had also served on another conservative nonprofit, Americans for Limited Government, which shared the same mailing address, records show.   

Wotring did not respond to multiple phone calls or to a note left at his home.

James Crumley, who provides marketing services to conservative nonprofits and campaigns, was listed in an IRS filing as one of the directors. In a phone call, he initially said he did not remember anything about the group, including why it was formed.

“I can only speculate since I didn’t even remember this group existed,” he wrote in an email later.

Crumley said he’d learned that the group held no meetings and apparently had no bank account in its first two years. “The organization only existed on paper and didn’t do anything at all,” he wrote. 

Noah Wall, now a vice president of advocacy for a conservative nonprofit called FreedomWorks, was listed in Virginia state filings as a director of the group in 2014. Wall said he was surprised to learn of his role. He said he was approached by Wotring but never agreed to join.

“I never signed anything,” he said. “I’m not entirely sure what any of this is.” 

On July 21, 2014, the IRS approved the group’s application for tax-exempt charity status, which was also signed by Wotring, the group’s secretary. In its application, the group said it would be nonpartisan and aim “to develop unbiased research on how government regulations on environmental policy can impact business.” The group by then had changed its address to a UPS Store in Fairfax, which was also used by Americans for Limited Government.

But just six weeks later, the newly approved charity changed its name, according to corporate records in Virginia. It was briefly called Working for Rights to Express & Communication.

The name was changed again in October of that year, to the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, according to records in Virginia. That same month, Whitaker, who had lost a primary bid for a U.S. Senate seat, became the group’s leader, according to Kupec, the Justice spokeswoman.

The charity’s mailing address was moved from Virginia to an office suite at a prestigious spot on K Street in the nation’s capital — a virtual office and mailing address shared by 200 organizations.

Kupec did not respond to questions about how Whitaker connected with the nonprofit.

Marcus Owens, a lawyer and nonprofit specialist who oversaw the IRS’s exempt-organizations division for a decade, said that in its first years the nonprofit appears to have been a “shell charity” that “was not utilized and remained on the shelf” until Whitaker’s arrival.

Taking over an existing charity makes it easier for groups to quickly stand up the operation and accept tax-deductible donations, he said. But charities that change their names and missions are required to alert the IRS, he said, to ensure they are still operating within guidelines for charities.

“It’s very possible that this organization is misusing its status as a charity,” said David Nelson, a specialist on nonprofit organizations and a former tax partner at the Ernst & Young accounting firm, who reviewed the group’s tax filings at The Post’s request. “It appears the IRS never gave approval to FACT.”

In its federal tax filing for 2014, FACT declared that it had not changed its name or its mission that year, records show, and there was no mention of the prior names. The spokesman for FACT declined to provide documents that he said showed it had notified the IRS of the name change. 

In the 2014 filing, FACT reported that it had no employees and that it paid Whitaker $63,000 for three months of work, 30 hours a week, as president and director. It received $600,000 in donations, the document shows.

The Post determined from other tax filings that the money came from DonorsTrust, a large nonprofit organization that wealthy contributors have used to anonymously give millions to conservative nonprofits in recent years.

The president of DonorsTrust, Lawson Bader, declined to identify the source of the funding contributed to FACT through his organization.

FACT launched its advocacy efforts shortly after Whitaker took over, describing itself in a news release as a “new watchdog group.”

On its website and in tax filings in 2014, FACT said that its mission was “to educate the public about unethical conduct on the part of public officials by publicizing these actions through media outlets throughout the country” and through its own website.

The new three-member board now comprised Whitaker, Whitaker’s former law partner and a conservative activist, Neil Corkery, who is involved in operating or funding multiple conservative charities.

Whitaker’s former partner, William Gustoff, did not return calls for comment. Corkery did not respond to phone messages seeking comment. 

The IRS prohibits charities from directly or indirectly participating in political campaigns, for or against candidates. The prohibition is rarely enforced.

The FACT spokesman said the group is nonpartisan and focuses on Democrats and Republicans alike. 

A Post analysis of more than 200 television and radio appearances by Whitaker from 2014 to September 2017, when he was named chief of staff to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, shows that Whitaker was overwhelmingly focused on Democrats.

Whitaker or the often-conservative television hosts interviewing him uttered the name of one of the five Republican lawmakers that the group has targeted in elections complaints a combined 37 times, compared with more than 750 mentions of Hillary Clinton.

Most of those Clinton references — more than 600 — came in the run-up to the 2016 election, and nearly all were comments critical of Clinton’s tenure, including her email scandal or possible ethical conflicts surrounding the Clinton Foundation.

After the election, Whitaker’s focus in those interviews turned to another target, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Whitaker or hosts named Mueller 185 times.

Tax filings show that one of FACT’s biggest contractors was America Rising, a research and communications firm in Arlington, Va., “whose mission is to help its clients defeat Democrats,” according to its website. FACT paid America Rising at least $500,000 for research from 2015 to 2017, tax filings show.

FACT paid another half-million dollars to CRC Public Relations in Alexandria, Va. The FACT representative who declined to be named in this report is a CRC executive.

In December 2014, FACT began posting news items and commentary on its new website, including the prediction that a super PAC formed to promote Clinton’s presidential aspirations might someday illegally coordinate with her future campaign. 

“These moves will likely draw [Federal Election Commission] complaints due to possible federal election law violations,” the post says.

Whitaker, the face of the organization, was often in Iowa in those early months, according to a review of interviews he conducted at the time. But being the president of a nonprofit conferred legitimacy on him, helping to raise his profile in Washington even as it allowed the group’s backers to claim tax deductions.  

He was increasingly appearing as a commentator on conservative media outlets — including Newsmax TV and Fox TV — and last year became a paid legal analyst on CNN.

In addition to targeting Clinton, Whitaker took aim at Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) while filing election law complaints against Democrats and some Republicans. When asked by a radio host about the group’s pursuit of Democrats, Whitaker said, “It is a target-rich environment.”

In the three years he worked at the charity, Whitaker’s pay rose sharply each year, tax filings show. Last year, he was paid $55,000 a month. In all, he earned $1,219,000 — more than a third of the donations the group received from 2014 to 2017.

An IRS spokesman declined to comment, citing federal privacy law.

Alice Crites and Andrew Ba Tran contributed to this report.